PARIS — The German government’s decision to contract for a new telecommunications satellite is the latest example of governments’ continued reluctance to outsource satellite telecommunications to the private sector.
It will also likely mean reduced purchases of commercial satellite services as the German Armed Force, or Bundeswehr, moves more of its requirements to the government-owned Heinrich Hertz satellite.
The formal go-ahead for Heinrich Hertz, which has been debated for several years inside the German government before being approved by the German parliament in June, was confirmed on June 28.
Satellite prime contractor OHB SE and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, signed the design-manufacture-launch contract for 301.5 million euros, or $352 million.
A separate contract, for 15 years of satellite operations, will be awarded separately, DLR said.
The German military has a similar arrangement with Airbus Defence and Space for the two SatcomBw satellites, which have been in orbit since 2009 and 2010.
The Bundeswehr procurement agency, BAAINBw, contracted separately with Airbus to provide commercial C- and Ku-band satellite communication services until 2023 to complement the SatcomBw capacity.
The current contract for commercial satellite bandwidth, signed in June 2016, runs to 2023 and is valued at 113.8 million euros.
Satellite fleet operator Intelsat, which is an Airbus partner for the sale of X- and UHF-hand capacity from the Airbus-operated British Skynet satellites to the U.S. government, has been a principal commercial beneficiary of the German military’s commercial bandwidth requirement.
A spokesman for the German Ministry of Defense declined to speculate on whether Heinrich Hertz’s Ku- and Ka-band will replace all or most of the commercially procured capacity today.
“The German Federal Ministry of Defense intends to use the military part of the mission for its own communications needs by establishing satellite transmission capacities using Ku- and Ka-band frequencies,” the spokesman said. “Until now, Ku-band satellite capacities have been hired through commercial channels. These are set to be replaced, and expanded with the new capabilities in Ka-band.”
The big commercial fleet operators generate 10-15% of their revenue from sales to governments, mainly military services and, among these, mainly the U.S. Department of Defense.
Despite appeal, no rush to commercialization of military satcom
These and other fleet owners have tried for years, with limited success, to persuade military customers that commercial capacity can be made just as secure from cyber attack as military satellites, and that commercial technology is not lagging behind military developments.
But despite the promise of lower-cost commercial capacity and what is sometimes a higher rate of technology refresh compared to military programs, the expansion of the commercial satellite telecommunications industry has not seen a large growth in the military market.
Even the British government, which more than a decade ago privatized the purchase, maintenance and operations of all its military beyond-line-of-sight capacity, is now looking a returning to a conventional procurement for its Skynet 6 contract.
The French military, never much of a believer in outsourcing telecommunications to the private sector, will continue with conventional military procurement for its next-generation Syracuse satellites.
Heinrich Hertz will use a satellite platform, called SmallGEO, developed by OHB with German and European Space Agency support. Its payload, and its cost, will be divided into civil government and military sides. The civil side, represented by DLR, is led by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, BMWi.
In addition to providing a stimulus to OHB for the SmallGEO product line, Heinrich Hertz will carry around 20 satellite communications technology experiments.
Heiko Ultes of DLR said payload flexibility — a catch-all phrase meaning a satellite’s ability to respond to different market conditions in orbit by software upload — is a key to the technologies to be placed on Heinrich Hertz.
Among these are the K2KAR carbon fiber reinforced plastic Ka-band antenna, to be built by HPS GmbH; flexible 250-watt Ka-band and 300-watt Ku-band tube amplifiers; and a plasma-electric thruster called HEMP.